Ian Rankin sets the stage for Scotland's referendum

The Scottish novelist tackles the independence vote in his latest book

Steve Black / Rex Features / CP

On Sept. 18, Scots will vote on whether to be an independent country. Its most famous novelist tackles the contentious referendum issue in his latest John Rebus mystery, Saints of the Shadow Bible.

I tried to be balanced in this book. John Rebus would vote “No” to independence. He’s a conservative with a small “c”; he fears change. He likes the status quo, he likes things the way they’ve always been. He likes old seedy bars and ’70s rock music. He doesn’t like change, whereas [Insp.] Siobhan Clarke, who’s younger and more idealistic, would be pro-independence. So I’m right in the middle of the two of them, desperately trying not to take sides, because if you take sides, all you do in Scotland at the moment is make enemies. It’s school-playground stuff, kids saying, “My dad is bigger than your dad,” “My big brother will bash you.” And anyone who sticks his head above the parapet, there’s a rotten tomato waiting for him from one side or another.

There is some lofty idealism, but there’s an awful lot of grubby facts and figures that we need before we can properly, rationally make our minds up. What does it mean for the currency, the European Union, borders, our membership in NATO? The ruling Scottish National Party (SNP) just keeps changing the goalposts. So when it looked like it would be very unpopular to ditch the Queen, they said, “We’ll keep the Queen.” When the polls told them it would be unpopular to ditch the pound and go to the euro, they said, “We’ll keep the pound.” This goes contrary to decades of their thinking. Then, suddenly, it was going to be very unpopular to leave NATO; “Oh, we’ll stay in NATO but we won’t allow them to have any nuclear facilities or stuff coming to Scotland.” They’ll literally say anything to get that “Yes” vote, and fix it all later on.

But some of us want it all to be fixed beforehand. We want to know what we’re getting into before you vote.

SNP Leader Alex Salmond is a consummate politician. He can be statesmanlike, and jovial and down-to-earth. He can sometimes appear to be a bit of a buffoon. When Andy Murray won Wimbledon last year, he suddenly pulled a saltire flag out of his pocket and started waving it around, which you either thought was properly patriotic or made him look a bit ridiculous. I don’t think there’s another politician of his stature in this campaign standing against him at the moment.

And wherever he goes in the world, he “bigs up” Scotland. He’s always tried to make sure the world pays attention to this very small country on the northwest edge of Europe. And we’ve got that “in bed with an elephant” thing going on, a bit like Canada and the U.S.—everything seems to be weighted so heavily toward the southeast of England in what people pay attention to and where everything happens. As long as the Conservative government is in power in London, that is a bonus for independence, because the majority of Scots just hate them so much. The joke is that there are more pandas [two] in Scotland than Conservative members of Parliament [one.]

There’s a lot happening in 2014 in Scotland. We’ve got the Commonwealth Games coming to Glasgow. If Scotland did really well, that might boost the independence vote. The Ryder Cup is going to be played in Gleneagles in Scotland; who knows how we’ll do at that. And all of this is leading up to September, when we do eventually get the vote. At the moment, the polls seem to suggest there will be a narrow victory for the “No” camp, but anything can happen to change it.

As told to Patricia Treble